Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Book of Dust, Vol. 1 (La Belle Sauvage) - Philip Pullman

    2017; 455 pages.  Full Title: The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage.  Book # 1 (out of 2 so far) in the “Book of Dust” series. New Author? : No.  Genre : “Friendship Fiction” (that’s what Amazon labels it); YA; Coming of Age; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 5½*/10.

    How in the world can a 6-month-old baby attract so much attention?

    Some shady characters have brought her to the Priory of Saint Rosamund, located just across the Thames river from an inn called “The Trout”.  Now all sorts of people at the inn are asking about her.  Two of them claim to be her father.  No one claims to be her mother.

    The nuns at the priory are taking good care of the baby, whose name is Lyra.  11-year-old Malcolm, who has a regular job at the Trout and at times helps out at the priory, is well-acquainted with the goings-on at both places.  Something has the nuns spooked a bit; they’re having their handyman, Mr. Taphouse, put shutters on all the priory's windows, to deter anyone from breaking in.

   But if someone is really determined to break into the priory in order to get to Lyra, shutters alone seem like an inadequate defense.  There are other means to entering that don't involve a window.

    And of course, shutters won't be any use at all if the mother of all floods comes roaring down the Thames.

What’s To Like...
    The Book of Dust (which is what we’ll call this, at least until we read/review Book 2) is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which was published in 1995-2000.  That series is fantastic, featuring a 12-year-old Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, as they brave the Arctic region to rescue lost children.  Now, 20-25 years later, we learn about Lyra’s beginnings, and become a lot more familiar with the parallel-world London into which she was born.

    The book is divided into two parts of about equal length.  Part One is called “The Trout” and is mostly concerned with character introductions, world-building, and ramping up the intrigue surrounding baby Lyra.  Part Two is titled “The Flood”, and focuses on Malcolm, Lyra, and a girl named Alice as they flee down the raging Thames in a tricked-up canoe christened “La Belle Sauvage”, in search of safety.

    The parallel world is similar to ours, with a few subtle changes.   Some are just different spellings: Britain becomes “Brytain” and chocolate is now “chocolatl”.  A few historical divergences are hinted at: with the terms “Swiss War”, and “German Ocean”.  The main difference is that everyone is born with his own personal daemon, a sort of spirit animal that houses one’s soul.

    I liked the various steampunk gadgets: truth measurers, naphtha and anbaric lamps, gyropters, and most importantly, the rare and highly-treasured alethiometers.  The cutting-edge science is focused on Rusakov fields and the titular “dust”.  Although humans and their daemons predominate, Malcolm and company also run into witches, fairies, a water-loving giant, and the enigmatic “Old Father Thames”.

    I thought the character development was excellent.  There’s not much you can do with a six-month-old infant protagonist (feed her and change her nappy), but everyone else has their own personalities, and the jury’s still out on a couple of them as to whether they’re good guys or baddies.  I also liked the optical “spangled rings” that occasionally plague Malcolm.  I occasionally have those too, although, unlike Malcolm's, mine don’t seem to serve any magical purpose.

Kewlest New Word...
Stone the Crows (phrase) : an exclamation of surprise or shock. (a Britishism)
Others :  grizzling (v.); knurling (n.); marquetry (n.); espalier (n.).

    “I wonder if you’ve met a man called Lord Asriel.  He’s a friend of my people, a notable explorer in that part of the world.”
    “He has been here, but not recently.  I did hear…” The professor looked awkward for a second, and then his eagerness overcame his reluctance.  “I don’t listen to gossip, you understand.”
    “Oh, neither do I,” said Coram.  “Sometimes I overhear it, though.”
    “Overhear?” said Lofgren.  “That is very good.”  (pg. 54)

    “Hey, you know the man who was murdered?  The one who was strangled and thrown in the pond?”
    “You’re not supposed to talk about him.”
    “Yeah, but you know what my dad heard?”
    “He was a spy.”
    “How do they know?”
    “My dad couldn’t tell me that, ‘cause of the Official Secrets Act.”
    “Then how could he tell you the man was a spy in the first place?  En’t that an official secret?”
    “No, ‘cause if it was, he wouldn’t be able to tell me, would he?”  (pg. 108)

 “We can only defend democracy by being undemocratic.  Every secret service knows this paradox.”  (pg. 204)
    Alas, for me The Book of Dust was a bit of a disappointment in a number of respects.  The pacing in the first half of the book is incredibly slow, and while there's a goodly amount of intrigue, there’s not much action and/or fantasy.  The second half at least has more action, but it’s really just a 200-page chase.  Maybe Philip Pullman intended to write this as a “YA friendship” type of book, but it is in stark contrast to his preceding trilogy, which had oodles of excitement.

    The ending was a letdown for me.  Our heroes make it to London (that's not a spoiler), but Lyra’s haven seemed anything but secure to me, given the resources the bad guys have at their disposal.  Even worse, a slew of plot threads are simply left dangling.  To wit:

    How did the main baddie follow our heroes so easily?
    When the mega-flood hit, what happened to everyone in Malcolm’s village, including his parents?
    Exactly why are the baddies so fixated on Lyra?
    Was there a cosmic reason for that oh-so-timely flood?
    Is there any purpose for all the attention paid to "one-way screws"?

    I recognize that leaving some plot threads unresolved is a catchy literary device when penning a series, but good grief, couldn’t a couple of these have been tied up here?

    5½ Stars.      Philip Pullman is a sufficiently talented writer to where he keeps things  in this book reasonably interesting, but frankly, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired.  I don’t see that it contributes anything to Lyra’s saga, and now that we know its sequel, The Secret Commonwealth, takes place after the original trilogy, this prequel seems even more pointless.

    Still, if you can’t get enough of the world of His Dark Materials, and you love the concept of a personal daemon, you’ll be quite content with The Book of Dust.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Chronicles of Banarnia - Robert Rankin

    2019; 284 pages.  Book 2 of the "Final Brentford Trilogy" series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Absurdism; British Humour; Far Fetched Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    “Brentford is under attack.  From a race of beings that most would consider imaginary.  Namely, the fairy folk.”

    Thus spoke Professor Slocombe to his three guests, Julian Adams (aka “the Goodwill Giant”), Jim Pooley and John Omalley (aka “Jim Polly” and John “O’Mary” when they’re getting in touch with their feminine side).

    The fairies’ war plan was diabolically simple.  One night they installed a huge, magic "fairy ring” disguised as a ring-road around Brentford.  No one gets in, no one gets out.  And now the good citizens of Brentford find that Time has reversed itself and with each day they’re moving back towards 1796.

    Why that particular year?  That’s when a major battle was fought between the Fairies and us humans; we who the fairies scornfully refer to as “the Sons of the Simian”.  We won; and the fairies ever since have been relegated to the underground.  The Earth is hollow, you know.

    Now they’re back, and spoiling for a replay of that 1796 battle, and this time they intend to win.  And wipe out every Son of the Simian from the face of the Earth.

What’s To Like...
    The Chronicles of Banarnia is the second book in Robert Rankin’s The Final Brentford Trilogy series.  I haven’t read the first book (The Lord of the Ring Road), so I appreciated that the first chapter here gives a brief backstory.  I haven't read any of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books either, so I can’t say how much this parodies that series.

    The main plotline features various Brentfordians attempting in various ways to thwart the fairies’ plans.  Some head underground to carry the fighting to Banarnia; others seek to avenge the only casualty in the war so far: “Old Pete” who was done in by a fairy operative nicknamed Dundledots.  Most of these efforts soon go awry, with a number of our heroes getting captured along the way.  The fun is watching the mayhem that ensues.

    This is vintage Robert Rankin, with a slew of his recurring gags showing up: “talking the toot”, alliterative paragraphs (see the excerpt below), lots of wittily-named pubs and booze, and my personal favorite, the lady in the straw hat.  The mystical fighting art of Dimac and Barry the Sprout are missing, but we can live with that.

    The pacing is brisk; there are all sorts of new characters to meet (including the charming, literary-talented P.P. Penrose), and Robert Rankin’s patented wit (which is the main reason I'm hooked on his books) abounds.  The text bounces around from one hero's tale to another's (almost always via a clever segue), yet the storyline is remarkably easy to follow.  The Chronicles of Banarnia is written in English, not American, so you can endeavour to reconnoitre, and be knackered in your leathern attire.

    There are always loads of trivia references in a Robert Rankin book, here they include nods to several other writers in the Fantasy genre.  The musical nods range from Donovan to Adam Ant to Napalm Death, and I was left yearning to hear the song “Werewolves of Wimbledon”.  I also liked the historical mentions of Rorke’s Drift, the Lords of Misrule, and the artists Caravaggio and Hieronymus Bosch.

    The ending is skillfully contrived, twisty, and surprisingly exciting.  Have fun trying to guess which character ultimately turns the tide of battle.  The main plotline – the skullduggery of the fairies – is seemingly resolved, despite this being the second book in a trilogy.  But it should be noted that Robert Rankin considers the proper number of books in a trilogy to be anything other than “three”.

Kewlest New Word...
Mooncalf (n.) : a foolish person (archaic)
Others : Charabanc (n.); Bonce (n.); Toff (n.); Cagoule (n.).

    This bar did have a certain p-ness about it.
    Patrons perched on pub stools, purveying pump room patter to their peers.  Pinstriped personages perorated with peerless production.  Pints a plenty poured and a pianist named Percy plonked poignantly upon a pink piano.
    “Perfect,” said Omally, “Simply perfect.”
    The three travellers approached the pub counter.  From behind this a plump publican, perused them through a puce and purple peeper.
    “A prial of peregrinators,” he said.  “Welcome to the Pflying Pig.”  (loc. 3092)

    “Where is Jim Pooley?  Bring him to me now.”
    John Omally raised a hand.  “Just why do you want Jim Pooley?”
   “I have come to make him rich.  I am Prince Goodwill Jeremy from Nigeria.  Good friend Pooley helped me when I was without funds and now I am here to reward him.”
    Jim Pooley rose with a smile.  “I am Jim Pooley,” he said.
    Old Pete raised his walking stick.  “I am Jim Pooley,” said he.
    “No, I am Jim Pooley,” said John Omally.
    “I am too,” said Norman.
    “And I an’ I,” said Leo.  (loc. 6809)

Kindle Details...
    The Chronicles of Banarnia sells for $7.99 right now at Amazon, as does the other book in the series, The Lord of the Ring Roads.  Other e-books by Robert Rankin are priced in the $0.99-$7.99 range, with most of them either $3.99 or $6.99.

“There’s more than one way to pickle a beetroot and make it fink it’s an apple.”  (loc. 5354)
    The Chronicles of Banarnia is a typical Robert Rankin offering, but I recognize that can be a plus or a minus.  If you’re yearning for a new literary direction from this author, and he’s penned a slew of novels that do just that, you might be disappointed.  OTOH, if you were wishing he’d stick with the tried-&-true, you’ll be delighted with this one.  I was.

    The final chapter gives an epilogue-like recap of where everyone in the story ends up, which in turn closes with a teaser hinting that there might be at least one more book in the series, possibly titled Normanghast.  If you follow Robert Rankin on Facebook (as I do), you’ll know that 2019 was both a busy year (working on an all-illustrations book) and one with a few health issues.  Here’s hoping that 2020 turns out to be a fantastic year for him, and that we haven’t seen the last of Jim Pooley, John Omally, and Barry the Holy Guardian Sprout.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 Star if you read The Lord of the Ring Roads first.  You’ll undoubtedly get more out of the book than I did, but I still found it a satisfying read.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

   2005; 268 pages.  Full Title : Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.  New Authors? : Yes and Yes.  Genre : Economics; Sociology; Statistics; Data-Mining, Non-Fiction.  Laurels: 2006 Book Sense “Book of the Year” in the “Adult Nonfiction” category.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    What the heck is Freakonomics?

    Well, I’ve always figured it was a clever name for something to do with economics, and I don’t read that genre of books.  Reading someone’s predictions about whether the stock market is about to go up or down, or whether the national economy is on the verge of tanking just isn’t for me.  But Freakonomics is not about economics, despite one of its co-authors being an economist.

    I then decided the book is probably about statistics.  I’ve taken courses and attended seminars about statistical analysis.  I’ve learned how to calculate a standard deviation, make and use control charts, and the meaning of the phrase “six sigma”.  It’s all rather enlightening, but also quite boring.  But Freakonomics is not about statistics; there’s nary a calculation in it.

    What Freakonomics is all about something called “data-mining”, which is the practice of examining large databases of information and extracting logical (and hopefully valid) conclusions therefrom.  Or, as one of the authors puts it…

    "How to look at the world like an economist."

What’s To Like...
    Freakonomics is divided into ten sections, a lot of them with witty, provocative titles:

An explanatory note (pg. xxiii)
Introduction: The hidden side of everything (pg. 1)
Ch. 1. What do schoolteachers & sumo wrestlers have in common? (pg. 15)
Ch. 2. How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents? (pg. 51)
Ch. 3. Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? (pg. 85)
Ch. 4. Where have all the criminals gone? (pg. 115)
Ch. 5. What makes a perfect parent? (pg. 147)
Ch. 6. Perfect parenting  Part 2: Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet? (pg. 181)
Epilogue: Two paths to Harvard (pg. 209)
Bonus Matter (pg. 213)

    The chapters cover the authors’ most popular and controversial subjects, and the data they used to arrive at their conclusions.
Ch. 1. Schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers both cheat, although only the teachers got fired.
Ch. 2. Klansmen and realtors both take advantage of us by implying that they have superior, “secret” knowledge.  And so might your doctor.
Ch. 3. Drug gangs and McDonald’s both have remarkably similar, top-heavy organizational charts.
Ch. 4. Legalizing abortion is the biggest cause of a steep drop in the crime rate.
Ch. 5. Factors that do, and do not, influence how a child does in school.
Ch. 6. What the name you give your child says about you.

    A whole bunch of fascinating anecdotes and other bits of trivia are sprinkled throughout the data-mining.  There’s the couple who named two of their kids “Winner” and “Loser”.  Yeah, guess which one did better in school.  There’s also the story of the “invention” of halitosis, which I had read about years ago, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s (when he was Lew Alcindor) account of growing up “white” in a black neighborhood, which was sobering.

    You’ll learn about the inherent discrimination in the voting on “The Weakest Link” (and no, it’s not against blacks and women), what crack cocaine has in common with nylon stockings, just how inflated those profiles on dating websites are, and the economics that justify a typical prostitute earning more than a typical architect.  There's also some riveting insight into the daily life in a tough Chicago street gang.

    I found the Explanatory Note, Introduction, Epilogue, and Bonus Matter sections all to be worth my reading time, and the Index section in the back came in quite handy.  The pros and cons of giving gift cards as Christmas presents was enlightening, and if you find you need a daily Freakonomics fix, their website is

    The sixty-six highest-ranked wrestlers in Japan, comprising the makuuchi and juryo divisions, make up the sumo elite.  A wrestler near the top of this elite pyramid may earn millions and is treated like royalty.  Any wrestler in the top forty earns at least $170,000 a year.  The seventieth-ranked wrestler in Japan, meanwhile, earns only $15,000 a year.  Life isn’t very sweet outside the elite.  Low-ranked wrestlers must tend to their superiors, preparing their meals, cleaning their quarters, and even soaping up their hardest-to-reach body parts.  So ranking is everything.  (pg. 38)

    The conventional wisdom on parenting seems to shift by the hour.  Sometimes it is a case of one expert differing from another.  At other times the most vocal experts suddenly agree en masse that the old wisdom was wrong and that the new wisdom is, for a little while at least, irrefutably right.  Breast feeding, for example, is the only way to guarantee a healthy and intellectually advanced child – unless bottle feeding is the answer.  A baby should always be put to sleep on her back – until it is decreed that she should only be put to sleep on her stomach.  Eating liver is either a) toxic or b) imperative for brain development.  Spare the rod and spoil the child; spank the child and go to jail.  (pg. 147)

 When there aren’t enough hats to go around, the problem isn’t solved by lopping off some heads.  (pg. 142 )
    I don’t really have anything to nitpick about in Freakonomics.  The f-word gets used a couple of times, but only when the authors are citing a direct quote of someone they’re interviewing, and you gotta respect that.  I do have a caveat, however.

    Data-mining is equal parts art and science.  So the authors are to be applauded for giving the rationale and (some of the) data they used to formulate their conclusions, but it’s also okay if the reader finds some of their logic to be non-persuasive.  What Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner perceive as “cause and effect” can be seen by others as simply “commonality”.

    This is particularly relevant when reading the section on the authors’ most controversial hypothesis: that legalizing abortions is the most important cause for a steep decline in the crime rate twenty years later.  This startling assertion is noteworthy for pissing off both the right-wing anti-abortionists and the left-wing political correctness advocates, the latter resenting blacks being singled out as the culprits for the rise in crime.

    8½ Stars.  One last bit of trivia, courtesy of Wikipedia: Freakonomics is currently banned from Texas prisons, presumably due to Chapter 4.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

When The Walls Fell - Monique Martin

    2013; 260 pages.  Book 2 (out of 11) of the “Out of Time” series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Time-Travel; Romance; Whodunit.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Ah yes, Temporal Paradoxes.  They're the reason the CFTS ("Council For Temporal Studies") warns every one of its time travelers not to change anything when they journey back into the past.  You never know when you might change history through even the smallest act.

    But now the CFTS wants Professor Simon Cross to go back to 1906 San Francisco and stop someone from murdering a man named Victor Graham.  It seems that one of the current council members, Charles Graham, a descendant of Victor’s, has disappeared, and the council believes this was due to somebody creating a temporal paradox by killing Victor.

    Simon has his doubts about the mission.  The council may have ulterior motives, although what those might be is anybody’s guess.  So the CFTS switches to plan B.  They approach Elizabeth West, Simon’s student assistant, lover, and time-traveling sidekick, to try to talk her into doing the job.  They even add one more incentive: if Victor dies, it’s possible that Simon Cross himself will never be born.  How’s that for a temporal paradox?!

    By the way, didn't San Francisco get leveled by a deadly earthquake in 1906, with dozens of deadly fires and hundreds of people killed?

    Coincidence?  I have my doubts.

What’s To Like...
    When The Walls Fell is Book 2 in Monique Martin’s Out Of Time series.  I read the first book back in 2013, its review is here.  Both books are a clever blend of Time Travel and Romance genres, and here there’s a bit of a whodunit mixed in as well.  The council knows when Victor Graham is killed, but not who did the killing and why.

    I like that the time-travel is limited to requiring a special pocket watch and only when there’s a lunar eclipse; it prevents the chrono-hopping from being too convenient.  The Romance element centers around Simon and Elizabeth patching things up after a lovers’ spat.

    The writing style is what I call “storytelling” mode: the emphasis is on moving the plot along without getting bogged down with long descriptions or character depths.  Yet the 1906 setting is still portrayed well; and Elizabeth’s joy ride in an automobile from back then was a memorable experience.  I also liked Monique Martin’s habit of making up words and phrases: “physics-y”, “Jeevesy”, “rococo gone loco”, “great googley moogley”, et. al.  It takes a certain confidence to coin your own expressions in a novel, and here I felt it fit in nicely.

    I thought the book was well-researched for its time period.  Madame Blavatsky gets a brief nod; as does Rachmaninoff.  There’s even a smidgen of Chinese worked into the story, plus a brief discourse about the serious topic of racism, which I thought was quite timely (no pun intended).

     The ending was a mixed bag.  A couple plot twists crop up to challenge our heroes, including a clever one that I didn't see coming for the baddie.  Yet the resolution of the main thread, Victor’s demise, while certainly twisty, didn’t feel very exciting.  Overall, I was expecting Simon and Elizabeth to face bigger challenges than what went down.

Kewlest New Word...
Cheviot (n., but an adj. here?) : the wool or tweed cloth obtained from the Cheviot sheep.
Others: Fatuous (adj.).

    “She’s found some psychic.  Madame Palianko or Petroika or something equally Russian.  You see my wife’s foibles aren’t just limited to her taste in music.  They’ve somehow managed to venture into the Other World.”
    “Twaddle,” Wentworth said between puffs.
    “Caroline will be seeing spirits for weeks,” Gardiner said, rolling his eyes again.  “Last time we had a medium over she was convinced the ghost of her Uncle Merryweather was trapped in the credenza.”   (loc. 5411.  All locations refer to the three-book bundle from which I read this book)

    “I hate that we can’t change things, and yet, I’m kind of afraid I did.”
    Simon’s eyes narrowed.  “Elizabeth, what did you do?”
    “Nothing, maybe.  Or, maybe, I might have said something that’s sort of responsible for the beginnings of the inklings of the founding of the Temporal Council and the invention of the time traveling watch.”
    “I was gone two hours.”
    She shrugged.  “It was an interesting two hours.”  (loc. 7091)

Kindle Details...
    When The Walls Fell sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, Out Of Time, is free; the rest of the e-books in the series all sell for $4.99.  You can also purchase the Books 1-3 bundled together for only $4.99.  Monique Martin has a bunch of other books and series available for your kindle, most of which are priced at $3.99, plus a couple of Christmas novellas for $2.99 apiece.

“The Vichy just doesn’t soise like it used to.”  (loc. 4715)
    There are some nits to pick, but most of them are minor.  At one point some extremely potent components are smuggled into a jail and then used to quickly eat through the steel bars on the prison cell.  Ignoring the unlikelihood of successfully slipping these unnoticed past the guard, there’s also the issue of how incredibly fast-acting the concoction was.  I’m a chemist.  Trust me, this doesn’t work in real life.

    There’s only a smattering of cussing in the text, and a couple of rolls-in-the-hay, but nothing lurid.  Despite the tameness, some reviewers weren’t keen on these sex scenes being included.  They have a point, but hey, it’s clearly indicated that these are “Time Travel Romance tales, and those of us who read them only for the Time Travel angle need to suck it up and tolerate the lovey-dovey stuff.

    Finally, for me the storyline seemed to be a bit “loose” in places.  For example, the séance was a high point in the story because it challenges the reader to try to figure out if it's supernatural or a scam.  The evidence was mixed – mysterious wet footprints versus the medium’s known origin.  But I don’t recall this plot thread ever being conclusively resolved.  I also never figured why Maxwell was at times referred to as “The Great Leslie”, nor whether Charles Graham eventually managed to “undisappear”.

    Full Disclosure: I read the last half of When The Walls Fell in a hospital waiting room, so it’s entirely possible that the answers to these plot threads were there, and that I was just too distracted to grasp them.

    5 Stars.  Add 1½ stars if you like the idea of mixing Romance with a Time Travel tale.  Methinks it's an acquired taste that I still haven't gotten used to.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Memories Of Ice - Steven Erikson

   2001; 913 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 3 (out of 10) in the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series.  Genre : Epic Fantasy; Sword & Sorcery.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    A new scourge, incredibly large, has appeared out of the south, threatening the Malazan-controlled city-states in northern Genabackis.  It calls itself the Pannion Domin and the citizens of all cities in its path will be subjected to unimaginable horror.

    The choice is conversion or death.  To convert means to never eat food again.  Your only source of sustenance is cannibalism.  You feast on those who decline to convert.  The conversion rate is impressive, but you soon run out of victims to devour.  Then there's only one thing to do.  Go north and conquer another city.  And tell those hapless citizens to convert or die.

    The Pannion Domin seems unstoppable, but if there is any hope at all, the northern powers will need to unite and conduct a coordinated attack.  Sadly, none of them trust each other, and everyone seems to have hidden agendas.

    That includes the small but famed fighting force known as “Onearm’s Host”, which unfortunately is currently considered to be a renegade Malazan army.  They’re a veteran bunch, and their motto is “First in, last out.”  They’d be a logical choice to spearhead to counterattack on the Pannion Domin.

    Unfortunately, whoever leads the charge will most likely suffer grievous casualties.  The odds are rather slim of anyone in the “first in” group being alive to be the “last out”.

What’s To Like...
    Memories of Ice is Book 3 in this series and is the follow-up to the storyline started in the initial book, Gardens of the Moon, which is reviewed here.  My favorite set of characters in this sword-&-sorcery world, Whiskeyjack and his Bridgeburners, are once again in the spotlight.  But as usual, Steven Erikson weaves a bunch of seemingly disparate plot threads into a gritty and fascinating tale.  To wit:

1.) The Bridgeburners and others try to stop bickering, and unite to oppose the Pannion Domin.
2.) Gruntle and others guard and guide a caravan through dangerous territory.
3.) Lady Envy, Tool, and Toc the Younger form a small but deadly fighting force.
4.) The T’lan Imass respond en masse to a summoning.
5.) Quick Ben seeks to save the Sleeping Goddess.
6.) Ganoes Paran is about to be promoted, whether he wants it or not.
7.) Anomander Rake goes MIA.

    The threads all start quite far apart from one another, their individual intents are “fluid”, and it’s fun to read/watch as they gradually converge.  In lesser hands, the story would get annoyingly confusing, but the author handles it all deftly.  It helped to have a handy Dramatis Personae at the start of the book, and an equally useful Glossary in the back.

    The character development is phenomenal.  Sixty or more beings – whether living, dead, undead, magical, or ascendant – are each given unique and memorable personalities.  The world-building is equally impressive.  There are two maps at the start of the book, but frankly, I found Erikson’s descriptions to be sufficient to “feel my way” across the various lands.

    There’s a nice blend of recurring characters and new ones.  Paran now assumes a more significant role, and Kruppe continues to be an enigmatic figure.  I think Gruntle, the Mhybe, Norul, Anaster, and Ormulogun are all new characters, they were all fun to meet, and I suspect they’ll all have a significant impact on the saga.  Ditto for the weird-and-fascinating fighting group called the “Motts Irregulars”, whom I can only describe as “hillbilly fantasy”.

    The fighting scenes are limited to the battles over two cities – Capustan and Coral.  Both are protracted struggles, and you won’t feel cheated when it comes to epic thrills-&-spills.  Some good guys die, some bad guys survive, and everyone that’s mortal begins to get the creepy feeling that they’re just puppets being manipulated by gods who have their own agendas.  I liked that concept.

    The book closes nicely, with 200 pages or so about the fighting in Coral.  The main issue – the threat posed by the Pannion Domin – is resolved, albeit at a terrible cost in lives.  Steven Erikson catches the reader up on where all the main (surviving) characters intend to go from here, and lays down some teasers for events that I assume will take place in Book 5.  Book 4, House of Chains, will follow up on events in the completely separate storyline in Book 2, Deadhouse Gates (reviewed here, and resides on my TBR bookcase, awaiting my attention..

Kewlest New Word ...
Geas (n.) : an obligation or prohibition magically imposed upon a person.  (Irish).

    “Hey, you could break my nose again – then we could straighten it and I’d be good as new.  What say you, Stonny?  Would the iron petals of your heart unfold for me?”
    She sneered.  “Everyone knows that two-handed sword of yours is nothing but a pathetic attempt at compensation, Harllo.”
    “He’s a nice turn at the poetic, though,” Gruntle pointed out.  “Iron petals – you couldn’t get more precise than that.”
    “There’s no such thing as iron petals,” Stonny snorted.  “You don’t get iron flowers.  And hearts aren’t flowers, they’re big red, messy things in your chest.  What’s poetic about not making sense?  You’re as big an idiot as Buke and Harllo, Gruntle.  I’m surrounded by thick-skulled witless fools.”
    “It’s your lot in life, alas,” Gruntle said.  “Here, have some tea – you could do with … the warmth.”  (pg. 98)

    “I intend to retire, to disappear if need be.  I’m done.  With all of this.  Some log cabin in some frontier kingdom, a long way from the Empire.”
    “And a wife swinging a pot at your head.  Marital, domestic bliss – you think Korlat will settle for that?”
    Whiskeyjack smiled at the High Fist’s gentle mockery.  “It’s her idea – not the pot-swinging – that’s your particular nightmare, Dujek.  But all the rest … all right, not a log cabin.  More like a remote, wind-battered keep in some mountain fastness.  A place with a forbidding view.”
    “Well,” Dujek drawled, “you can still plant a small vegetable garden in the courtyard.  Wage war against weeds.”  (pg. 738)

“Beru fend me.  I underestimate even the true idiots in this company.”  (pg. 345)
     The quibbles are few.  There’s some cussing, but not a lot, using both our own standard expressions and some more imaginative Malazan-world ones (such as “Togg’s balls!”), and I thought it fit in nicely with the gritty “War is Hell” tone of the story.  There is also one instance of sexual assault, but it is handled as discreetly as possible.

    There are two maps – one of the city of Capustan, the other of the continent of Genabackis – at the start of the book, but I’d still like to see one showing the whole world.  Also, Steven Erikson seems to have a couple of choice words that he uses whenever he can – efficacy, susurration, surcease, acuity, dissembling, coruscating – but IMO, they’re all way-kewl words.

    Finally, the book is written in English, not American, so “none the less” is three words, “no-one” has a hyphen, and your scepticism might be wilful, loth, labouring, or smouldering.  Reading a story in a "foreign" language might not be to everyone’s taste, but I’ve always enjoyed tales by British authors.

    8½ Stars.  ANAICT, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a completed 10-volume series, disregarding prequels and novellas.  I’m still thoroughly enjoying the stories, but I note that, as is true for more writers of epic fantasy, the books get longer as the series progresses.  The last 5 books seem to all be in the 1200-1300 pages length.  One should choose sagely before entering into any epic fantasy series.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - Dee Brown

   1970; 451 pages.  Full Title : Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Native American History; US History.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Back when I was a kid, I vaguely recall watching a Walt Disney “made for TV” movie about Custer’s Last Stand and the sole survivor of the 7th Cavalry force, a horse ridden by Captain Myles Keogh named Comanche.

    The horse really did survive the battle (you can read about him in Wikipedia here), but obviously the storyline is completely fictional.  For the time (1958), Disney did a decent job of balancing the tale – which portrayed both Keogh and an Indian youth (played by a very young Sal Mineo) in an equally positive light.

    Alas, it was necessary to have some bloodthirsty Indian kill off Keogh in the battle, which led to the only scene from the movie that has stayed with me all these years.  The horse Comanche, enraged by its master’s slaying, in turn stomps the Indian warrior to death.  While all the other Indians just stand around, watching passively.

    It occurs to me that Custer’s Last Stand is pretty much all I know about the Indian wars that spanned the second half of the 19th century.  And that all those John Wayne cowboys-&-Indians movies were only showing us the white man’s version of the events.

    So it was eye-opening to read about what went on from the Indian’s point-of-view.  In Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

What’s To Like...
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee consists of 19 chapters,, plus a short introduction by Dee Brown.  The first chapter is a quick synopsis of how the Indians in the eastern half of the US fared between the time the first white settlers came ashore until 1860, when the white man began crossing the Mississippi River into the Great Plains in huge numbers.

    Each subsequent chapter features a different tribe or war chief, and starts off with a “current events around the world” prologue which gives the reader a perspective of the events about to unfold.  There are also 49 photographs, mostly portraits of the various Indian leaders in the struggle.  At the end, there’s a brief biography of Dee Brown, which is worth taking time to read, plus sections for Notes, Bibliography, and Index.

    I recognized a lot of the US army characters.  In addition to Custer, the Civil War generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan play major roles, and both were royal a$$holes to the Indians.  Kit Carson was initially sympathetic to the Indians, but eventually turned into their foe as well. The names of the Indian leaders were less familiar to me.  Here’s a partial list of them, see how many you’ve heard of: Tecumseh, Pontiac, Red Cloud, Manuelito, Roman Nose, Black Kettle, Ely Parker, Cochise, Geronimo, Victorio, Captain Jack, Satanta, Quanah Parker, Lone Wolf, Gall, Chief Joseph, and Ouray.

    I was surprised to learn that Custer’s Last Stand wasn’t the only time the Indians won.  The Fetterman Massacre won a whole war for them, with the US abandoning several forts and withdrawing from Indian territory, at least temporarily.  The Plains Indians also formed alliances with other tribes to fight the American army, which I never knew.  There’s a brief reference to the origin of scalping, which I had heard before.  And since I’ve spent time in Ponca City, Oklahoma, it was enlightening to read about the resistance put up by the Ponca Indian tribe.

    The book closes with a chapter devoted to Wounded Knee, as one last pitiful band of Indians tries making a dash to freedom, deluded in the belief that by performing the Ghost Dance, all the white people would disappear.  Their flight, in the dead of winter, is mercilessly snuffed out, and the final photograph in the book shows the corpse of the Indian leader Big Foot, after he’d frozen to death during the escape.  It was the winter of 1890.  In 2007, a eponymous movie was made based on Dee Brown’s book; it won 6 Emmy awards and 17 nominations.

    “My God and my mother live in the West, and I will not leave them.  It is a tradition of my people that we must never cross the three rivers – the Grande, the San Juan, the Colorado.  Nor could I leave the Chuska Mountains.  I was born there.  I shall remain.  I have nothing to lose but my life, and that they can come and take whenever they please, but I will not move.  I have never done any wrong to the Americans or the Mexicans.  I have never robbed.  If I am killed, innocent blood will be shed.”  (loc. 592)

    Crow Creek on the Missouri River was the site chosen for the Santee reservation.  The soil was barren, rainfall scanty, wild game scarce, and the alkaline water unfit for drinking.  Soon the surrounding hills were covered with graves; of the 1,300 Santees brought there in 1863, less than a thousand survived their first winter.
    Among the visitors to Crow Creek that year was a young Teton Sioux.  He looked with pity upon his Santee cousins and listened to their stories of the Americans who had taken their land and driven them away.  Truly, he thought, that nation of white men is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.  Soon they would take the buffalo country unless the hearts of the Indians were strong enough to hold it.  He resolved that he would fight to hold it.  His name was Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull.  (loc. 1120)

Kindle Details...
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee at present sells for $10.99 at Amazon, but I’ve seen it discounted several times over the last couple of years.  Amazon offers about a dozen other Dee Brown e-books - some fiction, some non-fiction, all historical tales set either in the Wild West or the Civil War - and in the $5.99-$10.99 price range.   Alternatively, you can get BMH@WK bundled with two other of Dee Brown’s Native American-themed books, Creek Mary’s Blood and The Fetterman Massacre, for $23.99.

I shall not be there.  I shall rise and pass.  Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (Stephen Vincent Benet)(loc 116)
    I don’t have any quibbles about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  The worst I can say is that the chapters sometimes felt repetitive, but that was due to the US army having only one way to deal with the Indians, which was:
   a.) greet them,
   b.) offer to buy their land,
   c.) make them sign some sort of treaty, written in English,
   d.) change the treaty when back in Washington,
   e.) tell them to move to a barren reservation, or be killed.

    The Indians knew they were outnumbered, out-gunned, out-industrialized, and about to be starved to death, no matter what choices they made.  When a hunter-gatherer society encounters an agrarian/industrial society, the latter inevitably annihilates the former.  The outcome here was inevitable; all parties knew it.  But we whites didn't have to be so brutal about it.

    A couple bonus excerpts, to show what the Indians were up against:

    In 1860 there were probably 300,000 Indians in the United States and Territories, most of them living west of the Mississippi.  According to varying estimates, their numbers had been reduced by one-half to two-thirds since the arrival of the first settlers in Virginia and New England.  The survivors were now pressed between expanding white populations on the East and along the Pacific coasts – more than thirty million Europeans and their descendants.  (loc. 247)

    Of the 3,700,000 buffalo destroyed from 1872 through 1874, only 150,000 were killed by Indians. (loc. 4101)

    9½ Stars.  In 1972, one of my college dorm-mates was from the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation, which gets mentioned in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  IIRC, we made a couple visits there over the course of the year, and the two things I remember were: a.) the warm hospitality we long-haired white students were given, and b.) the abject poverty of some of the Apaches, including an elderly woman who lived in what was little more than an outside guest room with branches for a roof.
    I think sometimes the casinos are the Great Spirit’s revenge for what America has done to the Indian nations.